When you get this deep into a year-end countdown, you’re starting to look at the best of the best. Everything on today’s list, without exception, was a serious contender for Game of the Year. And while none of them snagged that brass ring in the end, there’s no denying it: these are some of the best games that 2013 had to offer. If you only play five games from 2013, this is where to start.
5. XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Mobile games are often compared to console games, and it’s not really a fair comparison. Games like Infinity Blade might look impressive, but they don’t really rival the depth and size of a AAA home console game. That’s what makes the mobile release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown such a landmark moment. With only a few minor concessions, what you’re getting here is the exact same experience that you would for $40 on the PS3, Xbox 360 or PC. It’s a beautiful, deep, and crazy addictive turn-based strategy game that you’ll lose hours to without even noticing it. While the gameplay is markedly different than Civilization, it’s not hard to tell that this comes from the same studio. Firaxis has mastered the “just one more turn” design technique better than any other studio out there.
4. The Cave – Ron Gilbert is a genius. This statement would be accurate whether he developed The Cave or not, but luckily he did, so I have a convenient excuse to say it. As the man behind Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, he was instrumental in popularizing the adventure game genre. Later he went on to make a slew of kids games (including the terrific Pajama Sam), helped Penny Arcade create their first games, developed DeathSpank and more. But enough about what came before – let’s focus on today, and today is the day that I convinced you to play The Cave: a game that mixes the humor and vibe of Gilbert’s adventure games with some incredibly clever puzzle platforming. Once you beat it, you’ll want to go right back for more – the game offers multiple characters, complete with their own special twist and unique set of levels and objectives. It’s the game so nice you’ll beat it thrice.
3. Papers, Please – Some games are designed to weigh heavily on your mind. Some are about crazy hectic gameplay. Rarely do these two design philosophies ever meet. But Papers, Please manages to cover both of these with its increasingly challenging time management gameplay and frequent moral decisions. As a border guard in a struggling fictional nation (straight out of the Cold War), you’ll earn a set amount for every visitor you let into the country. But the requirements on who can and can’t be let in changes every day – and some of those visitors may have very good reasons to ask you to bend the rules. You can, of course, but there will be penalties. At the end of the day you’ll need to spend your earnings to take care of your family. If you don’t, they’ll get sick, cold, and die. So do you let the wife cross the border who is missing one arbitrary piece of paperwork to immigrate, even though you’ve just processed her husband? Or do you kick her to the curb so that you don’t run the risk of starving your own wife? Papers, Please is a game of tough decisions and great gameplay.
2. Device 6 – If I made video games for a living, this is the game I’d want to make. Device 6 is a brilliant piece of interactive fiction built from the ground-up to be a mobile experience. The text doesn’t always flow in the same direction, forcing you to rotate your device. Sights and sounds punctuate the text, offering clues to how you might solve a puzzle and proceed to the next chapter – and the puzzles are terrific. The experience even offers a false reality that parodies your own: it’s a game on a device about playing a game on a device. In an App Store cluttered with copycats that are largely devoid of originality, games like Device 6 are more than just a breath of fresh air; they’re a reminder that experimentation can lead to things of beauty.